Having finished playing the role of a medieval tavern wench, as well as that of a towns lady at that most enjoyable of family events, the Medieval Mdina Weekend, which took place at the beginning of May, I thought I would share some historical facts with you about medieval clothing. In my role as a medieval reenactor, I have certainly had to focus on this subject quite a bit, recently.
Everyone has, at some point or other, encountered medieval movies/plays/novels, in other words, different representations of the Medieval era, but which of you actually know when the adaptation is accurate and can realise when it’s just a load of … let’s just say, wine gums?
So, for those of you whose knowledge of this era is a little misty, let’s take a brief step back in time.
In European history, the Middle Ages, or Medieval Period, lasted from the 5th century after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire until around the 13th century. In the 14th century, it then merged into the Renaissance era, which is also sometimes referred to as the Late Middle Ages.
The most commonly represented Medieval Period, however, usually focuses on the Early and High Middle Ages, that is, until the 13th century. Political unrest, wars and conquests occurred frequently during this era.
Returning to our subject, medieval fashion hardly changed during the early medieval period. Amidst political troubles, internal wars and social disturbances, people had neither the time nor the inclination to focus on their clothing, they were simply too busy surviving!
Medieval clothes provided information about the person wearing them. At the time, fashion was dominated and influenced by the Kings and Queens of the era. However, only the wealthy could dress in fashionable clothes. Only royalty were allowed to wear cloth of gold or purple, and those from noble families could afford velvet, satin or ermine.
Apart from the elite, most people at the time had very poor living standards, and their clothes were made from thick, course material, which was spun locally within their own villages. Most people probably wore only wool or linen, usually undyed, and leather or fur from locally hunted animals.
Both men’s and women’s clothing were simply cut, sometimes trimmed with bands of decoration, embroidery, or colourful borders woven into the fabric at the loom. The garments of the medieval peasant from the lowest ranks in society were generally short and tight. He wore breeches, or tight drawers, mostly made of leather and tight tunics or doublets. A knife, purse and sometimes even working tools were attached to a belt which was worn over the tunic. Capes or cloaks of coarse brown woollen materials were used for extra warmth.
During this period, the basic clothing for women from all classes was a simple sleeved full length tunic dress, with a vertical slit. This was usually laced at the bodice. The borders and hems were usually decorated with embroidery, very richly so for the upper classes. An under-tunic might also be worn and hose or stockings were apparently often worn. Cloaks, shawls and mantles were used during the winter or for the outdoors.
Christian married women were expected to cover their hair with a loose shoulder cape, mantle or kerchief, especially when they were out of their homes. Young girls’ hair was tied with a flowery wreath or a metal band, called a virgin’s crown. Long hair was either left loose or was plaited with decorative bands.
As such, there wasn’t much difference among the distinct social classes in the way the clothing was cut, the differences became evident mostly in the materials and the colours used. While the country folk made their fabrics, the nobility and the richer families had the possibility to buy imported fabrics from across the world. While someone from the higher echelons of society would probably own a variety of clothing, a poor peasant, would probably have had only one tunic.
In those days, imported materials were obviously expensive, and so most of the clothing used by the population was made of simpler fabrics such as wool, which is course, difficult to wash and dry, and of course very hot in summer. Coupled with the fact that in medieval times people only washed once a year (if that) it’s no wonder that there was so much strife and unrest in those days, all that itching and irritation must have been enough to make anyone angry and certainly very short-tempered!!